Hoi An ~ A Place to Shop and Eat.

My first impression of this town was cheesy. In one direction were tourists, in the other were the hawkers selling trinkets or sugary donuts. I heard the gentle, instrumental muzak version of “My Way” playing. Strangely, I kept hearing it as I continued walking. There are actually posted loudspeakers dedicated to playing contemporary easy listening hits as if to encourage the mall atmosphere this town as acquired. It’s not wholly without charm. There are fascinating old houses, a lovely Japanese bridge, swinging, glowing lanterns across the street and a friendly, but completely commercial vibe. There are 400 custom tailor shops and perhaps just as many restaurants. With so many tourists, that much competition is possible. But, it is totally overwhelming. There are signs posted outside many stores and restaurants proclaiming wonderful reviews on TripAdvisor. And they are probably all correct. The tailors are probably all talented, and the restaurants are probably all tasty; but how do you choose?

dsc02084

I went to BeBe tailors (11 Hoang Dieu) because they had lots of great reviews and I liked their storefront. After lots of cajoling by my helper, Hoa, I chose a 3 pc. suit, 6 shirts, tie, 2 jeans and a pair of trousers. It was all fully measured to fit and cost 690$. After shipping airmail and CC surcharge it came to a total of 823$. I checked Banana Republic and you can get a suit and only 5 shirts for the same price (but not tailored) so I felt it was a good deal. There were many fittings and re-fittings, so make sure you have at least three days in Hoi An to get exactly what you want. I was too concentrated on seams and crotch length to remember to take a picture, but I felt satisfied with the results.

I learned quickly that all the restaurants serve the same three special dishes as well as others offerings. But, they are:

1) Banh Bao (white roses) A delicate little dish of prawns wrapped in boiled rice flour. It’s a nice, simple appetizer.

dsc_0003

 

2) Hoanh Thanh Chien (fried wontons) They are fried flat with a smidgen of meat inside, topped with shrimp, crab, and salsa.

dsc_0004

 

3) Cao Lau (noodle with pork) This is a fragrant, delicious dish. Wide, slightly hard noodles are mixed with pork, croutons, fresh herbs and some salad. I ate this dish at several different establishments, and they were all similar and flavorful.

dsc_0005

dsc02076

I stayed at the Sunflower Hotel (276 Cua Dai) which is a converted hotel into hostel. They have a pool with good sundeck, free billiard table, free water, free breakfast and clean facilities. It’s a bit of a walk from the hostel into the town, but you’re also closer to the beach here.

Hoi An ~ Bale Well

I had searched a few times for this place, and couldn’t find it. Then, as always, when wandering lost on my last night, I found it. Lonely Planet recommended it, and with good cause. It’s an outdoor seating, BBQ/family style gem. They offer a SET (as in, only thing you can order) menu for 125,000 dong (6$). It includes a large salad, marinated vegetables, fried spring rolls, two kinds of pork, fried pancakes, rice paper for wrapping and the special sauce. The nice ladies who work the place will help you build a few of your wraps until you can try. Basically, you just put a splash of all the ingredients on the table into the little, clear rice paper wraps, roll, dip and eat. I had been underwhelmed with the amount of street/authentic local food in this tourist haven. This was a place where everyone comes. Your fingers are greasy, beer is condensating, stomach is full and then they bring you a little chocolate or mango mousse with a dollop of whipped cream. The chairs aren’t comfortable enough to make this a place to chill for a long time and hang, but it serves a delicious purpose.

Best restaurant in Hoi An. (51 Tran Hung Dao)

Image

Image

Massage in Asia

No, I don’t mean that all too frequent use of the word, as in “happy time massage.” I mean a true, therapeutic relaxation for the achy muscles of the body. Asia is a mecca of cheap, excellent massages. I’m a big believer in massage to relieve tension and toxins, especially after long transit, carrying heavy backpacks or party nights. I tried a few places around the world, and here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Don’t let a pretty girl standing outside her shop be your masseuse.

They can be distracting (to men) and usually have no idea what they are doing. It will end up being an hour of gentle rub-down leaving you feeling tingly like gerbils just ran around on your skin, but not deep muscle relaxation. You can let her coerce you inside, but make sure the girl trained or knowledgeable about the body does the massaging.

2) Don’t go to a shop where you can’t see inside.

If there are blinds or curtains or no chairs visible, it’s not a good sign. They are probably hiding something.

3) Don’t go if it’s dirty.

The shop should be immaculate. Everything should smell new and fresh and pleasing to the senses. Dirty could mean dirty towels, tables, water, oil, hands etc.

4) Don’t get pressured into more than what you want.

This is hard, because they make it sound amazing. Think what you want before (30, 60, 90 min) (face, feet, back) and make a good deal with them. But sometimes you should listen if they say they are experts in a certain style.

5) Don’t be afraid to show them your problem areas / communicate.

If they speak English, great, if not, use body language. Make sure you get the correct muscles taken care of during your time. They will usually ask a few minutes in, “Okay?” That’s your chance to say, “Stronger, softer, faster, slower etc.”

6) Make sure they are wearing a uniform.

If they are in their casual attire, they’re not taking their job seriously. This rule isn’t necessary if you are just doing a foot massage. Anytime anyone touches your feet it’s a good thing.

**Bonus Tip: Don’t even bother going if you’re sunburned. Just get the baby oil, aloe; put on some soft cotton clothes and pump the A/C.

So essentially, common sense, yet I have made all these mistakes. Find a professional, clean looking place; a happy, helpful staff; tell them exactly what you need and relax. Different countries specialize in different styles. Taiwan and China are great with foot acupressure. Korea does extremely strong sports massages. SE Asia usually does a version of Thai/Swedish.

I’ve found in SE Asia, you can pay between 7-15$ for an hour massage at small shops, and 30-70$ at higher quality resorts. Quality always ranges, so start with a 30 minute test run, then you will know if you want more. They are always happy to oblige. Some places use oil and may require you to be naked or in underwear. Others will use a towel over your shirt. Also remember to rehydrate immediately after to flush all the toxins that have been released through the muscles into the bloodstream. Coconut water, with the added potassium, is great if available. And don’t drink alcohol for a few hours as your kidney is overworked with the released waste.

Image

Selling Candles in Hoi An

 

They were happy to take a picture because they thought I would buy a candle. The little girl ran up to me after I turned around and pulled my pants to offer her cute face as a selling point. You just can’t buy every time someone shouts, “Buy something!” And for me, if it’s not edible, I don’t usually buy anything.

dsc_0010

The next group wasn’t so pleased.

dsc_0006

Chili Peppers

There is a creepy, dilapidated park on Hanoi St. in Hue, just off the main street next to the river, where sad, old children’s rides sit unused, rusting in dementia of faded glory. Perhaps this park used to hold lots of happy times for the local children. They would ride the carousel with parents’ hands gently resting on their backs. They would wait impatiently in line for the silly little dragon roller-coaster with a 2 meter drop. They would eat soggy popcorn and sugary cotton candy and get that bouncy little step of childhood excitement.

Those days are passed, as in my two hours in as many days spent exercising here in this park saw only old men pissing on old trees, groups of old people talking about old topics, and a few young kids with parents passing through on their evening stroll. But, I did meet one family. His name was Xiyen (Zune). He started to talk to me about this and that and ask why I was exercising. He said, “You strong! Let’s arm-wrestle.” He said it in a way that I knew he was stronger than his frame suggested. We did and he didn’t win and he didn’t let me win either. We just locked arms and he’d push me to the edge and then relax. He had the rough hands and burly forearms of a lifetime laborer. My calloused right middle finger where my red pen rests as I correct faulty grammar and white board writing forearms can’t compete with that kind of natural power.

He said, “You like chili peppers?” I affirmed I liked them but not too much because then food is too spicy. “NoNoNo, like Chili Peppers…Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now!! Can’t Stop!” Another classic misunderstanding of communication. He liked American music, and a good band as well. We laughed and sang some verses together. He left with a wave and a flourish as his three nieces crammed onto his motorbike creeping into the ceaseless wave of motorbikes.

Hue ~ A Fragrant City with a Slow Pace

The citadel rests safely inside the moated walls of this old city. What must have been an impressively beautiful sight once, is, as most ancient things become, worn down by tourist’s feet, decades of wars and overgrown by misplaced trash. You can see the inherent beauty and try to imagine the courtyard swimming with the color of royal festivities. Entrance is about 5 US$. It is a great place for pictures and slow walking. There are some photographic displays of the old Confucian scholars taking the dreaded test for placement, modern Vietnamese women dressed in traditional clothing and the endlessly entertaining landscape of Vietnam.

There are also several tombs dedicated to old Vietnamese kings about 2-16 km away from the south bank of the Perfume River. I rode a bicycle to visit three of them. It was an exhilarating ride. I smelled the hearty smell of muddy rice paddies blended with tiny jasmine petals. I smelled the ubiquitous roadside fires. I saw a baby cow resting with her family on the roadside. I saw a big bull elephant putzing around with some trees. I rode through a nice part of town full of interesting and interested faces. The tombs were also good photo opportunities, but not quite as grand as I was expecting. I left town at 11:00, visited three tombs and was back for dinner around 17:00. In all, it’s about 35 km round trip, and I felt it in my knees and thighs.

dsc_0213

dsc_0212

dsc_0228

dsc_0229

The famous food here is Bun Bo Hue, a redder broth version of beef Pho. I got it at a little place called Cafe You and Me (38 Tran Cao Van St.) It was very similar, but still good. I find Pho is fully dependent on good, clean broth and non-gristly meat, which this place had. I talked with the owner Mr. Trung. He leads tours to the old DMZ and various other places nearby. He told me he opened this restaurant and tour company in 1999. He fought in the war on the south side, and served two years in prison after it ended. “It was hard on body and mind,” he said unsurprisingly. I imagine his tour would be interesting if you like first hand accounts of history.

dsc_0206

dsc_0207

I stayed at the Hue Backpackers Hostel (10 Pham Ngo Lao). They have great staff, wifi, decent breakfast, good beds (doubles or singles), big, functioning lockers, and a nice atmosphere in the communal bar area. They can help you get anything you need: bikes, tours, food, bars, laundry or supplies.

Image

dsc_0257

 

Image

Image

Image

csc_0273

dsc_0133

Hue ~ Anh Qu Cafe

On a mix of outdoor and covered patio is a comfy little place inside the walls of the imperial city of Hue. I stopped in after a long day of cycling visiting the tombs of former Vietnamese kings. I ordered a mango juice, crispy noodles with pork and vegetables, sesame beef and the Hue “speciality”–loc. It’s impossible to ruin mango juice (unless you add sugar). The crispy noodles were like slightly saucy, lightly boiled ramen noodles among bok choy, onion, garlic and pork. I liked this one. The beef was tasty but dry. Loc turned out to be thin, gelatinous rice cake wrapped around mini prawns. They were individually wrapped in a large inedible leaf and when dipped into the chili water, they absorbed a nice spiciness. The food was normally priced. I spent 170,000 dong (about 8 US$). The waitress was friendly. The old men playing cards nearby sang along to songs from such artists as Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston and Kool and the Gang; you can probably guess which songs were playing (except Kool and the Gang, it was “Cherish”).

dsc_0276

I don’t have a picture of the noodles because I was too hungry to remember.

Address: 26 Thanh Ton

beef

Kids in Hue, Vietnam

Each of these kids’ mothers were very happy to take pictures and made them wave at me. I said Hello and Goodbye in English and Vietnamese. I just don’t know what they’re thinking. I know I look different, but it really does seem to be a mix of revulsion, confusion and curiosity. It’s not the same with adults. They’re mostly quick to return my smile with the same.

Image

Image

Image

dsc_0204

dsc_0174

Image

Old Man Counting Dong in Hue

Old Man Counting Dong

He reminds me of the classic image of Ho Chi Minh mixed with the Kill Bill master, Pai Mei. He was counting a decent amount of money in front of a large store that looked to be selling herbal and organic medicines.

Hanoi to Hue on a Night Bus

I walked into the first tour company outside my hotel. I didn’t know what I wanted. I had plenty of money. I had only been in the country for a few days. I didn’t do my research yet. I was leaving in two days. I was just the customer they desire–no objections, slight sense of urgency, gullible and willing. My agent was a young man who had a nice face and he told me about the open plan bus schedule. I would get several stops along the way from Hanoi to HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City), and stay in each place as long as I wanted. It cost 50 US$. It sounded great. Then I got to Internet searching and found terrible reviews all over about this tour company and any tour company for that matter. I got real nervous, thought about eating the ticket and just waiting for tomorrow to take the train. I walked around aimlessly, ate pho, drank a few mango juices, bought a beautiful sandwich from Joma (don’t miss this place if you’re craving a decent sandwich, evidently they are all over the big cities of Vietnam), got some chocolate, stretched and waited for the bus with severe apprehension about both making it in one piece and possible leg cramps. The transit bus packed 17 people and luggage into a minivan built for 12. It was crazy; and then another guy hopped in the front seat. We were dropped off at a street corner and waited. Nobody else seemed nervous. Two German speaking girls assured me it would be fine.

The giant bus arrived lit up in day-glo colors, clean and new. I got a great first impression. I jumped in front of the nice Israeli guy I was chatting to because, I wanted first choice of seats. I protested with the driver’s request to go to the back and picked the first row, window, upper bunk. There were three rows, each with two bunks. There was also a functioning toilet, but with shoes not allowed and an increasingly wet floor (as men and bumpy buses don’t equal good aim), this was an unfavorable combination. It wasn’t as comfortable as a bed, but I was prepared with kindle, Ipod, clothing layers, sandwich and small pillow. The bus hit minor bumps along the way, made cargo pit stops, honked occasionally, but we arrived on time and safe. There were three drivers who took turns driving (and sometimes while moving). They were reasonably polite and careful with baggage. They talked and texted endlessly. I slept a few restless hours, similar to airplane travel, where you wake up from a crazy nap dream to see that only seven minutes have elapsed. I finished a book, delighted in my choice of road snacks and arrived fairly happy and relaxed.

I have two more night trains left, so we will see if they measure up to this one.

Camel Travel Tours–Hanoi to Hue to Hoi An to Nha Trang to Da Lat or Mui Ne and finally to HCMC.